Image: Fire brigade at the Inter-Continental hotel
Gemunu Amarasinghe  /  AP
An Afghan fire brigade drives into the Inter- Continental hotel in Kabul on Wednesday.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 6/29/2011 2:29:24 PM ET 2011-06-29T18:29:24

The first sign that militants were attacking one of Kabul's premiere hotels was an explosion that pierced Jawid's eardrums, prompting him to jump out the window of his room on the first floor into a chaotic scene that quickly turned into a grisly morass of bodies, gunfire and shattered glass.

Twenty people died — including all nine attackers — in a more than five-hour standoff at the Inter-Continental that ended early Wednesday after NATO attack helicopters fired missiles to kill three suicide bombers on the roof.

It was one of the biggest and most complex attacks orchestrated in the Afghan capital and appeared designed to show that the insurgents are capable of striking even in the center of power at a time when U.S. officials are speaking of progress in the nearly 10-year war.

It started with one loud explosion at about 10 p.m. Tuesday, startling hotel guests, including Jawid, who uses only one name.

"There was smoke. People were running everywhere. There was shooting and crying," he said after escaping from the hotel grounds with his family. "The restaurant was full of guests."

The brazen attack, which occurred just a week after President Barack Obama announced the beginning of a U.S. troop withdrawal next month, led some to question whether the insurgents had inside help.

Video: Hotel attack raises questions about Afghan security (on this page)

Pentagon and U.S. military officials told NBC News that US and Afghan authorities are investigating that possibility. The big question is how the attackers were able to penetrate and get weapons into one of the most heavily fortified public facilities in Kabul.

Slideshow: Kabul hotel attack (on this page)

The transfer of security responsibility to the Afghans is due to officially begin in seven areas of the nation, including most of Kabul province, in coming weeks.

"Where is the security in this country?" Jawid asked, shaking his head. "Where is the security in this hotel? When I got to the hotel, I had to go through three checkpoints. How did they enter?"

One hotel guest, Saiz Ahmed, an American Ph.D. student in Kabul studying Afghan legal history, said he cowered in a corner of his hotel room as the sound of gunfire and explosions grew louder.

Story: Journalists return after Afghan hostage ordeal

He told CNN he thought death was imminent. "I'm sure none of us thought we were going to make it," he said. "I wrote my little will — just in case." The document, which he placed in his pocket, stipulated, according to Islamic law, the charities to which he wanted to donate, CNN reported.

After about six hours, he got the all-clear to come out and was escorted with other guests to the basement.

"As soon as we were able to get to the basement, people started praying, thanking God," he told CNN.

Image: Smoke and flames rises from the Inter-Continental hotel
Stringer/afghanistan  /  REUTERS
Smoke and flames rise from the Inter-Continental during the early Thursday morning attack.

Another guest, Abdul Zahir Faizada, the leader of the local council in Herat province who was in Kabul to attend a conference on that very issue, had just finished dinner at the hotel restaurant and was walking to his room on the second floor when the militants struck. He said he saw five or six people in security-type uniforms clashing with the hotel staff and guards.

"Suddenly I saw this guy in a uniform pushing a man to the ground. He shot him dead," Faizada said.

For the rest of the night, Faizada and the mayor of Herat stayed locked in their darkened hotel room, whispering into cell phones with friends back in Herat who were giving them news updates of what was happening during the standoff.

Militants, armed with explosive vests, anti-aircraft weapons and grenade launchers, launched the attack on the eve of a conference in the capital about transition plans.

Some of the attackers carried tape recorders playing Taliban war songs and shot at anyone they saw. Guests jumped from second and third floors to escape, a hotel receptionist told Reuters, asking not to be identified.

Ashraf Ghani, chairman of the transition commission, was defiant as he opened the conference, which began Wednesday despite the bloodshed.

"The transition process will be done, and these coward enemies will not stop our plans," Ghani said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai also vowed that his army and police would be ready to take over from foreign forces as planned, warning the militants are "enjoying the killing of innocent people."

"Such incidents will not stop us for transitioning security of our country" to Afghan forces, Karzai said in a statement.

U.S. Rear Adm. Vic Beck, director of public relations for the international military coalition, said Afghan security forces responded quickly and professionally to the scene — even though NATO helicopters were later called in to attack militants on the roof of the hotel. NATO said coalition mentors also were partnered with some of the units involved in the incident.

"This attack will do nothing to prevent the security transition process from moving forward," Beck said.

Security at the Inter-Continental and other key installations had been tightened for the conference and other official events taking place in the city. Officials said they were investigating how the insurgents were still able to get through and infiltrate the building, which is frequented by foreigners and dignitaries.

Guests and visitors must pass through a roadblock and guards posted at the bottom of a hill that winds up to the building, then another checkpoint along the road before reaching the hotel where more security guards are set up in a building with metal detectors.

"We believe that there was a loophole in the security," said Latifullah Mashal, the spokesman of the Afghan National Directorate for Security. "So far, we don't know how they infiltrated. The intelligence service and the Ministry of Interior will jointly investigate this. We do have a few clues."

Afghan police were the first to respond to the attack, prompting firefights that resounded across the capital. A few hours later, an Afghan National Army commando unit arrived to help.

After hours of fighting, two NATO helicopters opened fire at about 3 a.m. at militants on the roof of the six-story hotel. U.S. Army Maj. Jason Waggoner, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said the helicopters killed three gunmen.

A final explosion occurred when one of the bombers who had been hiding in a room blew himself up long after ambulances had carried the dead and wounded from the hotel, according to Kabul Police Chief Gen. Mohammad Ayub Salangi.

Mashal said five of the suicide attackers blew themselves up and three were killed on the roof by coalition helicopters.

The 11 civilians killed included a judge from Logar province, five hotel workers and three Afghan policemen, Mashal said. The Ministry of Interior said a Spanish citizen also was among those killed, but no other information was disclosed.

The ministry said 18 people were wounded in the attack — 13 civilians and five policemen.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in the capital — an apparent attempt to show that they remain potent despite heavy pressure from coalition and Afghan security forces. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid later issued a statement claiming that Taliban attackers killed guards at a gate and entered the hotel.

Before the attack began on Tuesday, officials from the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan met in the capital to discuss prospects for making peace with Taliban insurgents to end the nearly decade-long war.

The Inter-Continental — known widely as the "Inter-Con" — opened in the late 1960s, and was the nation's first international luxury hotel. It has at least 200 rooms and was once part of an international chain. But when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the hotel was left to fend for itself.

Twenty-two rockets hit the Inter-Con between 1992 and 1996, when factional fighting convulsed Kabul under the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani.

It was used by Western journalists during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Attacks in the Afghan capital have been relatively rare, although violence has increased since the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden in a U.S. raid in Pakistan and the start of the Taliban's annual spring offensive.

On June 18, insurgents wearing Afghan army uniforms stormed a police station near the presidential palace and opened fire on officers, killing nine.

Story: 35 die as bomber destroys Afghan medical center

Late last month, a suicide bomber wearing an Afghan police uniform infiltrated the main Afghan military hospital, killing six medical students. A month before that, a suicide attacker in an army uniform sneaked past security at the Afghan Defense Ministry, killing three people.

Violence also continued elsewhere in Afghanistan.

A NATO service member was killed Wednesday by insurgents in southern Afghanistan, the coalition said, bringing to 62 the number of foreign troops killed so far this month. More details weren't provided. Also in the south, the director of religious affairs for Kandahar province, was gunned down Wednesday morning in the provincial capital of Kandahar.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Video: Hotel attack raises questions about Afghan security

  1. Closed captioning of: Hotel attack raises questions about Afghan security

    >>> just as we were on the air last night, there was breaking news out of kabul, the capital of afghanistan where a couple of suicide bombers attacked the intercontinental hotel , a well known landmark there, after a six-hour standoff with taliban security. a big fire broke out in the process. 21 people killed, including civilians, our chief foreign correspondent richard engel is stateside just briefly and with us in the studio tonight. we have all stayed in this hotel in our travels there, as i said, a well known landmark, but what does this say about the afghans securing their company? it says the afghans can't even secure their own country. i think the u.s. is going to have to accept being there longer or accept more attacks like the one we saw in kabul because if u.s. troops and nato troops aren't there, this is what's going to happen.

    >> gadhafi continues to hang on, especially where in the middle east . he's hanging on a couple of rebel advances recently and then last night, i saw the news out of cairo where you and i were last, covering the explosion of happiness then violence then happiness as part of arab spring, more violence in tahrir square where you were today.

    >> this is the worst violence since the revolution itself. the people, the revolution are back out on the streets, clashing with security forces , about 100 people hospitalized between today and yesterday , they're skeptical that the military, which is seen as a custodian of power here, overseeing the transition. they're showing the military is serious, they want to see more action taken against gadhafi and his cronies.

    >> i know you're headed back to the region this time tomorrow night, so who knows where we'll talk to you next, richard engel .

Photos: Kabul hotel attack

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  1. A NATO helicopter hovers over the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul on June 29 after the building was attacked by armed Taliban rebels. Eight civilians and 2 police officers were reported killed after suicide bombers and heavily armed insurgents attacked the hotel frequented by Westerners in the Afghan capital late on Tuesday, Afghan officials said. Helicopters from the NATO-led force killed the last three insurgents in a final rooftop battle, a coalition spokesman said. (S. Sabawoon / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Curtains and sheets reportedly used by people to escape the fire are left hanging on the facade of the Kabul Inter-Continental hotel after it was attacked by armed Taliban rebels on June 29. (S. Sabawoon / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Smoke billows from the Inter-Continental hotel during a battle between Afghan security forces and suicide bombers and Taliban insurgents in Kabul on June 29. (Ahmad Masood / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Coalition soldiers leave after taking part in a military operation against the insurgents in Kabul on June 29. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Afghan soldiers walk towards the Inter-Continental hotel at the end of a military operation against Taliban militants that stormed the hotel in Kabul on June 29. (Pedro Ugarte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. An Afghan soldier aims his gun as he guards the area surrounding the Inter-Continental hotel on June 29. (Pedro Ugarte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Smoke and flames light up the night from a blaze at the Inter-Continental hotel after an attack on the hotel by Taliban fighters and a response by Afghan security forces backed by NATO helicopters in Kabul on June 29. (Massoud Hossaini / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A NATO helicopter fires a missile towards the roof of the Inter-Continental hotel in Kabul on June 29. (Omar Sobhani / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Police help a man who was injured during the attack on the Inter-Continental hotel, early June 29. (S. Sabawoon / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Afghan Police take positions at a road leading to the Inter-Continental hotel after armed Taliban militants stormed it early on June 29. (S. Sabawoon / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Afghan security officials gather near the Inter-Continental hotel after armed Taliban militants stormed the hotel in Kabul early on June 29. (S. Sabawoon / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pakistani national, Ishtiaq Mohammed, a guest at the Inter-Continental hotel, leaves the building on June 29. (Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Data: Timeline: The war in Afghanistan

A look at key events in the U.S.-led conflict in the south-central Asian nation.

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    Above: Data Timeline: The war in Afghanistan
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